A Head and Two Hands - sketches

Oil Painting
1806 (painted)
A Head and Two Hands - sketches thumbnail 1
Not currently on display at the V&A

Place Of Origin

An oil sketch of a head and two hands

object details
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Oil on canvas
Brief Description
Oil painting entitled 'A Head and Two Hands - Sketches' by Sir David Wilkie. Great Britain, 1806.
Physical Description
An oil sketch of a head and two hands
  • Estimate height: 6in
  • Estimate width: 6in
Marks and Inscriptions
'D Wilkie 1806' (Signed and dated by the artist)
Credit line
Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
Object history
Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857

Extract from Parkinson, Ronald, Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860. Victoria & Albert Museum, HMSO, London, 1990. p.xviii.

John Sheepshanks (1784-1863) was the son of a wealthy cloth manufacturer. He entered the family business, but his early enthusiasms were for gardening and the collecting of Dutch and Flemish prints. He retired from business at the age of 40, by which time he had begun collecting predominantly in the field of modern British art. He told Richard Redgrave RA, then a curator in the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) of his intention to give his collection to the nation. The gallery built to house the collection was the first permanent structure on the V&A site, and all concerned saw the Sheepshanks Gift as forming the nucleus of a National Gallery of British Art. Sheepshanks commissioned works from contemporary artists, bought from the annual RA summer exhibitions, but also bought paintings by artists working before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. The Sheepshanks Gift is the bedrock of the V&A's collection of British oil paintings, and served to encourage many other collectors to make donations and bequests.

Historical significance: Sir David Wilkie R.A. (November 1785-1841) was born at Cults, which is about twenty miles north of Edinburgh. His father was the minister there and his maternal grandfather owned the mill at Pitlessie. His formal artistic training began when he was fifteen and his family sent him to the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh; this was the earliest publicly funded art school in Britain. He moved to London in 1805, and first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1806 at the age of only twenty. His painting "The Village Politicians" was a sensation and he was immediately something of a celebrity. He went on to become internationally recognised, his paintings of everyday life, with strong narrative themes, peopled with expressive characters and packed with eye-catching details, hugely popular with the public. He was made a full member of the Royal Academy in 1811, was appointed Painter to the King in 1830 and was knighted in 1836.

This sketch appears to be an original study by David Wilkie. It is signed and dated 1806, a year after Wilkie moved to London and the same year he exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy, London, at the age of only 20. But it has not been possible to identify a finished painting which contains the same elements as in this picture. By 1913 its deteriorating condition however was becoming a cause for concern. The painting had been part of the Circulation Department, where it was loaned out to art schools and small displays around the country. But a note on the Departmental file for this painting from 1913 reports that the painting was transferred from Circulation Dept. to Paintings Dept. because of "its unsatisfactory condition". A photograph on file shows that by this date the surface of the painting was broken up by hair-line cracks. The note comments:

"The cracks are largely due to the use of bitumen. They may however have been partly caused by varnishing. See Redgrave's "A Century of Painters", 1890, page 283, where it appears that Wilkie's "Blind Fiddler", probably painted in magylph , stood well for years, but on being varnished, in the course of one month it cracked in widening hair cracks down to the white ground; and "The Village Festival" also cracked in the like manner.

A further note on file quotes Sir Arthur Church [Arthur Herbert Church (1834-1915, Royal Academy Professor of Chemistry; Times report of his death, Wednesday June 2nd, 1915, "....was a leading authority in the chemistry of painting"]. Church inspected the painting on 2/6/1913 - see R.P. 13/2589M). "The contraction or "tessellation" of the paint and varnish in this painting needs what one may call professional treatment by a skilful operator. If the varnish were removed by careful chafing it might be found that the cracks in the paint beneath would not look so unsightly as to need filling in with new paint. If the study belonged to me I should entrust it to W. Morrill & Son, Duck Lane, Wardour Street, with injunction not to put any new paint on any part of the old".

The Conservation file for this painting notes that the painting was cleaned [photos on file identified as "Before Cleaning"]. A note from Basil Long 8th April 1913 comments, "The painting could not be thoroughly restored without a certain amount of repainting. The damage is largely due to the use of bitumen".
Historical context
This is one of eight works attributed to David Wilkie (1785-1841) which were given to the Victoria & Albert Museum by to the collector John Sheepshanks (1784-1863) in 1857, only 16 years after Wilkie's death. But although Sheepshanks and Wilkie were contemporaries and Sheepshanks knew personally many of the artists whose work he owned, it seems likely that the works attributed to Wilkie in Sheepshanks' collection were not purchased directly from the artist .
Subjects depicted
Accession Number

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record createdSeptember 14, 2006
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